After Romper Stomper, filmmaker Ian Pringle spectacularly fell from grace. Now, 22 years on, he’s back behind the camera.

By Diana Plater.

The long-awaited return of filmmaker Ian Pringle

Filmmaker Glenda Hambly and I are walking back from a Sunday afternoon trek along Moonee Ponds Creek in West Brunswick, Melbourne. Known by locals as Sludge River, it’s bordered by bike paths leading into the city, and gardens with fruit trees and chook sheds, a symbol in some ways of the suburb’s working-class ethnic roots. It’s a benign suburban scene: concrete walls covered in graffiti, in front of which a local volunteer is planting trees.

Up a side street, Hambly points out a block of yellow brick flats. “That’s where Ian lives,” she says.

She means Ian Pringle, co-producer of the groundbreaking 1992 film, Romper Stomper, and writer-director or producer of eight others. After a gap of 22 years, he is back – aided by Hambly as producer – with The Legend Maker, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival. 

The film, about a forger, Alan Figg (played by Tony Nikolakopoulos), facing pressure from another criminal, the Croat, was shot on a shoestring over 18 days, mainly at the Brunswick house Hambly shares with her partner, David Rapsey, and where Pringle lived for six years.

As we pass the corner store we run into a neighbour, Shane Bugeja, coming out of his gate carrying a load of washing. We chat as he explains he’s fasting for Ramadan.

Keen to be involved in the film as an extra, he was called back in to shoot another scene with his mate, Christos Iramiyan, playing the victims of a crucifixion-style torture – a flashback of Figg’s revenge on the people responsible for murdering his assistant in Potsdam, Germany.

“The idea is their skin is peeled back… It was cold,” Hambly remembers. “They were strung up on that gantry and their arms went numb.”

Like the actors and crew, including Pringle’s close friends and golfing mates cinematographer Brian McKenzie and editor Ken Sallows, they agreed to forgo payment until the film – originally planned for television – was sold. In the business, it’s known as “deferreds”. Hambly puts this down to the general respect for Pringle’s previous work and the desire to see him make another film. He crafted the script so it could be mostly shot in a couple of rooms and other spots around Brunswick, with one exterior at Sorrento beach, masquerading as Greece. Locals provided locations and props with no question of payment. As Pringle says, “You couldn’t have made this film in the eastern suburbs.”

Pringle calls this process “guerilla filmmaking” – the ability to make a film using digital technology on the cheap or, as he says, with “no budget at all”.

The inspiration for The Legend Maker was a real-life meeting Pringle had with a forger in Berlin in 1989. This was before the Wall came down and he’d been working on a film, The Prisoner of St Petersburg, which was in German and Russian, as well as English. Just by chance he accompanied the Russian translator to an office to drop off a parcel. “As soon as we walked in and looked around I was really caught by the layout of his workstation,” Pringle says.

The film came about because of a “collision of circumstances” including the way digital technology can now make it happen for “very, very little money”. 

“I said to somebody, it’s kind of ironic an old dog like me doing this at the end of his career when really it’s a model for young filmmakers to embrace,” Pringle says.

Still, last year it looked as if the film might never get finished, and it was only saved by post-production support from the MIFF Premiere Fund and Tony Ianiro at The Backlot Studios.

Moving on

Pringle is a wiry 63-year-old with glasses and closely cropped hair, not unlike Russell Crowe’s in Romper Stomper. We meet to chat at the large kitchen table in Hambly’s home. He doesn’t appear overly excited about the upcoming premiere and the raft of meetings about future projects he has scheduled for 37˚South, MIFF’s marketplace. But then, I get the sense he keeps his feelings to himself. 

I ask about the nine-month prison sentence Pringle was given in 1994, when he pleaded guilty to a third-degree burglary in New York after he had acted as an accomplice and co-conspirator to a romance writer who plotted to steal from the Park Avenue apartment of one of her wealthy friends. Pringle says he doesn’t shy away from the topic but he has no wish to tell “prison stories”.

 “I acknowledged I transgressed,” he says. “I paid for it and that’s it.”

But while people continue to quiz him on this theft of a nude Picasso sketch and other items valued at $800,000, he says he doesn’t have the temperament to dwell on things. 

“It’s not a lack of remorse. I don’t dwell, I just move on. I found many and plenty of things to do.”

Growing up in Armadale, bordering Toorak, in the eastern suburbs – the other side of the river – Pringle started making films as a student at Melbourne High.

“I was about 15 or 16 when I made my first short film. We were in a film society and we got some money from the school to make short films. I knew even before then that it was something I wanted to pursue.”

With no film school to go to, he landed a job at the ABC as a cleaner and later in the drama unit driving the make-up, wardrobe and props trucks. 

“In that way it got me in proximity to a film crew, which is what I wanted. And I ended up doing props on these dramas they were making.”

By then RMIT had a media and communications course and Pringle enrolled, mainly so he could borrow tape equipment at weekends and go out and make films. “Over the next six to seven months I made a drama [Flights] about 45-50 minutes long, and on the strength of that I got the first investments from what was then the AFI [Australian Film Institute],” he recalls. “Then I kept going, one after the other, and then my first feature, The Plains of Heaven [1982].”

His next film, Wrong World, won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985.

His friend and colleague, writer-director Ray Argall, who is also president of the Australian Directors Guild and is responsible for the grading and titles on The Legend Maker, worked on many of his early films.

“He was very entrepreneurial and very interested in European cinema… you could say a traditional style of European film that in Australia we haven’t explored that much,” Argall says. “He is a very driven filmmaker … with an Australian sensibility about working with people.”

His films explored landscape and the environment: Argall remembers that for his 1980 short feature, Wronsky, Pringle wanted them to film cows that were being led across a path of water – an eerie image of moving shapes.

In 1986 Pringle went to Berlin on film business, using it as a base for the next 13 years. He describes this time as exciting and the city as unique. Another of his friends and colleagues is legendary German director Wim Wenders, whom he had met around this time at the Hof International Film Festival.

While there, Pringle wrote and directed The Prisoner of St Petersburg, organising the first co-production between Australia and West Germany. It went on to win the award for best feature film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It was a “self-reflective” story about a young Australian played by Noah Taylor, who imagines he’s caught up in a Dostoyevsky novel.

At the time, Pringle says, nobody was even thinking of doing co-productions but he was spurred on after attending a trade delegation and finding a phone number to call in some literature he picked up there. 

In 1991 he also produced the first co-production between Australia and France, Isabelle Eberhardt, starring Peter O’Toole and Mathilda May, also under a memorandum of understanding, which was based on the story of a late 19th-century French journalist caught up in colonial politics in North Africa.

Romper Stomper, about a gang of Melbourne skinheads at war with a Vietnamese gang, turned the spotlight on a future Hollywood superstar – Russell Crowe. Not only is its subject controversial, but the film itself has been surrounded in myths. As Pringle, who co-produced it, puts it: he’s “heard so many different versions of what happened, it’s kind of a little bit peculiar”. 

His memories, however, are very clear. He was working part-time at the Australian Film Commission, reading and “equipping” a bunch of old scripts to see whether any had the potential to go ahead.

He spotted Romper Stomper, one of the few that showed any promise. But it was more than 200 pages long and about a bunch of thugs in the western suburbs who held no particular political doctrine.

He called in the writer, Geoffrey Wright, and gave him about $500 to go away and write another draft with the suggestion that it be brought up to date.

It took a couple of years, with Wright making a short feature in the meantime, enabling Pringle to go out and raise the money to make Romper Stomper, which also starred Jacqueline McKenzie and Daniel Pollock.

“It ranks among the hardest projects I’ve had to get going. The assessments from Screen Australia were horrendous – the film should never be made, people should be deported. The vitriol was just phenomenal. And it was only through the foresight of a chap called Peter Sainsbury at the AFC and a guy called Chris Fitchett down in Melbourne at Film Victoria – and they conspired with me to put the financing together.” 

Searching for identity

After years in Europe and the US, Pringle returned to Australia in 1996, with a need for a break from the film industry, although he found work as a script consultant for government film funding bodies and lectured at RMIT. “The nature of the business was it was difficult to reposition yourself. Not that I was trying really hard. But I wrote a few things.”

As he tells it, he might have ridden off into the sunset if it hadn’t been for The Legend Maker and guerilla filmmaking. 

The film takes up Pringle’s continuing themes – notions of isolation, how we grab on to an identity to get ourselves through life. He started research by looking up missing people, trawling through the Australian Federal Police website. It also depicts, through its various characters and their need for the forger, how desperate our society really is.

Not so interested in exploring the criminal world, Pringle still wanted to give dimensions to the professional forger and demonstrate the way he works and operates as well as showing his humanity. While the protagonist Figg is willing to help certain people, he is not a person to be messed with.

“It is a selfish and disposable society and becoming increasingly so,” Pringle says. “I’ve witnessed an extraordinary change in our society from an enclosed hypocritical WASPish society to a multicultural, dangerous society.”

He sighs. “It’s all about money. You pay at every turn and life management is so complex that if you miss a beat then you’re in trouble.”

What intrigues him as a storyteller, though, is the drama involved when people’s lives are turned upside down. “I’ve had enough time to think of a few good stories, let me tell you,” he says, laughing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "The returned". Subscribe here.

Diana Plater
is a freelance journalist who specialises in the arts.